| By Myra Bean
The battles for the top spots in Mississippi football heat up.
Tonight, South Panola (12-0) will host the Clinton Arrows (9-3 overall 5-2 district) in the second round of the playoffs.
South Panola downed a determined Provine team last Friday, 28-21, in the first round. Clinton escaped with a 19-10 win over Tupelo. Tupelo started the season with a loss to Clinton 17-10.
Since South Panola and Clinton are not in the same district, their meetings over the past eight years has been intermittent. They have met six times in those eight years, in addition to the last five years in spring jamborees. Clinton has won two times in 2000, 22-0 and in regular season play in 2001,
Tiger wins include in 1998, 34-6; in 1999, 56-12; and in 2004, 41-13. In 2002, the Tigers defeated the Arrows 18-0 in the regular season.
South Panola, the reigning 5A state champions, are looking to make it four straight championships. The Tigers are riding a 57-game win streak and enjoy a No. 16 USA today national ranking.
"I feel good about the game," said Tiger head coach Ricky Woods. "I’m sure Coach Scott Brown feels good about the game so it should be a really good football game."
Clinton started out with a perfect district record of 4-0 until a meeting with district foe Warren Central October 20. Warren Central handed them their first district loss in overtime 17-16.
Clinton has been ranked in the Clarion Ledger Super 10 Poll this season. The Arrows entered the poll on September 18 at No. 9 and moved up to No. 6 from September 25 through October 16. After the loss to Warren Central, they were off for one week then back on October 30. The loss to Provine, 49-28, in the final game of the regular season took them out of the poll again.
Though Clinton did have that loss against Provine, Woods said Clinton is better than Provine. Woods was speaking to Provine coach Willie Brown who beat Clinton.
"He (Brown) told me Clinton was better than him," Woods said. "The coach from Madison Central told me Clinton was better than Provine, and he played both of them."
Some of the key elements the Tigers will have to face with the Arrows is junior quarterback Wesley Mounger, 5’8", 150 pounds, wears No. 7.
"The quarterback is probably the best quarterback we have seen," Woods said. "He’s a really good player, a scrambling player. He can throw and run. They get in the gun a lot to see the run develop."
Woods described running back Amonte Harper as "exceptionally good."
"It’s time for their streak to end," said Clinton senior running back Harper in the Clinton News. "We want to be part of history as the team that finally beats them."
Woods also said Clinton will have the best linebacker the Tigers have faced this year in Corey Ray, No. 33, who is an inside linebacker.
Arrow linebacker Ray, along with offensive lineman Michael Bufkin and defensive back Lionel Graham help anchor the team on both sides of the ball.
"They have a great kicking game," Woods said. "They have a real solid football team."
Clinton was the only team to defeat Northwest Rankin, 37-28, who won District 2-5A on October 13. Northwest Rankin is hosting Olive Branch tonight in the other north 5A quarterfinal game.
"I think Clinton may have had some injuries early that cost them," Woods said. "When you have two or three people hurt, it’s hard to play."
Woods said Provine just got some breaks against Clinton in that game.
"They (Clinton) just have a good solid football team," Woods said. "Coach Brown does a good job coaching, and they are not going to beat themselves."
In the Clinton News, Clinton linebacker Corey Ray was quoted, "South Panola is beatable, and we’ll go up there focused to win, not to just play them close."
This game will be a "great challenge," according to Woods.
"I don’t feel like our kids are going to be intimidated by South Panola," Clinton coach Brown told the Clinton News. "We’re going up there, shoot out of both barrels and see what happens."
"We just have to step up to the plate and play to win," Woods said. "We had a really good week of practice. The kids are ready to play. It’s always good to play good competition.
"They have been focused this week," Woods continued. "Our guys know what’s at stake. We have to play hard. If you play hard, you give yourself a great chance to win the game. If you don’t play hard, you don’t give yourself a chance to win the game."
Woods briefly touched on the turnover ratio South Panola has experienced the last two weeks. He said all three of the running backs lost the ball last week and that they work on fumble drills every day.
"Actually, I thought the offensive line played better than it had played all year," Woods said. "The long interception on third and long, I don’t count that one. He needed to throw that one. He got about 45 yards which he would have gotten had we punted.
"On the other hand, when the offense had to come through they did this week," Woods added. "I am pretty up on offense. If we hadn’t turned the ball over, we could have scored 42. We scored 28. I thought the offensive line blocked harder than they had all year and I thought the backs ran harder."
To win the state championship or to beat Clinton, Woods said the team will have to have the same effort.
"We need to cut out turning over the ball and that is one of the key factors we have been working on," he said.
Another issue facing the Tigers is the injury situation. Senior linebacker Kevin Young suffered a grade one MCL (medial collateral ligament) injury to his right knee, but will play tonight.
Sophomore defensive back David Conner suffered the same injury except his is a grade two and he will not play. The worst is a grade three injury.
"If we are fortunate enough to win this week, hopefully we can get David back next week," Woods said. "We don’t know yet. David’s a little worse than Kevin. David is a lot better, but I don’t think he’s ready to play yet."
Tickets for the game are $7 and will be on sale at South Panola High School from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The ticket booth opens at 6 p.m. No reserved seating is available at playoff games.
The winner of this game will face the winner of the Northwest Rankin/Olive Branch game.
Upon a win, South Panola will host Northwest Rankin if they win. Otherwise, the Tigers will have to take a second trip this season to Olive Branch if both teams win tonight.
Other 5A games include Moss Point at Oak Grove and Meridian at George County.